Blog | | by Carolin

Current and future trends in sheet metal processing

The sheet metal processing industry is changing: Continuous further developments and the introduction of new technologies are aimed at making production even more efficient, precise and sustainable. We spoke to Alexander Kunz, Program Leader Next Level Sales & Services and former Head of the Customer Center at TRUMPF in Ditzingen, about current challenges and trends in the industry.

Skills shortage, automation & sustainability

The metalworking industry will continue to struggle with staff shortages in 2024. 'The shortage of qualified specialists is contributing significantly to increased demand for automation solutions,' explains Alexander Kunz. At the same time, it has been recognized that there is potential not only in pure sheet metal processing, but also in logistics. When it comes to networked production ('Smart Factory'), Alexander emphasizes the need for efficient networking both within manufacturing companies and between different companies. The aim is to achieve improved and more intelligent machine utilization. Efficient networking between machines and ensuring the smooth movement of materials are crucial, even across multiple stores.

Another key challenge facing the industry, according to the expert, is all 'green issues'. In his opinion, reducing material requirements through improved sheet metal design and intelligent design of sheet metal constructions plays a major role when it comes to sustainability. On the other hand, the choice of sustainable resources, such as green steel, is becoming increasingly important.

The desire for a digital transformation

Overcoming these challenges sheds light on emerging trends that are increasingly focusing on innovative solutions. The focus here is on changing the way we work through digitalization and automation.

TRUMPF's Customer Center, for example, has already embarked on the path to a paperless factory. In the past, set-up plans were handed out on paper by the shift supervisor, who then took them to the machine and started calling around, but now everything is done digitally. What was initially unfamiliar to many has now become indispensable. It is obvious that digitalization in production opens up many new possibilities. The former head of the Customer Center points out that this changeover requires consistent 'change management', but can also lead to considerable efficiency gains. He also mentions that there is a clear need for software solutions, particularly in production. The desire for a smart factory solution exists not only among companies that are already implementing highly automated material flows, but also among those that previously relied on manual processes. The 'Oseon' software developed by TRUMPF clearly underlines this trend. However, it is important to emphasize that such changes do not happen overnight and that not everyone is completely enthusiastic about digitalization - and that is completely legitimate. Digitalization is an ongoing process that has varying degrees of acceptance.

Artificial intelligence as a trailblazer

Although the topic of artificial intelligence is still in its infancy in sheet metal processing, it is already being used successfully in areas such as the laser processing of sheet metal.

 

For TRUMPF, AI is not a topic for the future, but a topic of the present.

When sorting cut sheet metal parts, TRUMPF relies on the Sorting Guide, a device with a camera that monitors the sheet metal panel and compares it with the NC program. The software recognizes the different parts and provides the operator with graphical instructions via a screen, which enables precise sorting, more efficient use of the material and error-free production. Tedious puzzle work is a thing of the past.

Technological innovations for an environmentally friendly future

According to Alexander, sustainability is becoming increasingly important to TRUMPF, highlighting the growing importance of sustainable practices in the sheet metal working industry. He explains that the CO2 footprint of a sheet metal part is mainly caused by material production and that even increasing the efficiency of the machines would only make a small contribution to reducing CO2 emissions.

The Ditzingen-based mechanical engineering company implements sustainability through technologies such as 'nanojoints', an advanced laser cutting technology that enables optimal nesting for efficient material utilization. This allows parts to be nested directly next to each other on the sheet metal panel. Furthermore, the focus is on reducing material consumption through optimized part design and efficient forming of sheet metal constructions. In this context, Optimate plays a decisive role as a digital solution provider, as it starts at the very beginning of product creation. Alexander Kunz sees Optimate as a pioneer in this field.

In addition, innovative approaches such as 'Scrap to Value' are being tested in cooperation with other companies. This concept helps customers to procure sheet metal more sustainably and reduce material waste by returning the material back into the cycle. Returning recycled materials to the production process in turn requires prior waste sorting.

Alexander also emphasizes the importance of steel production and the transition to green steel, which is produced using hydrogen furnaces. Conventional steel production leads to significant CO2 emissions due to the use of coal as the main energy source. According to the expert, the rising price of CO2 could make green steel more economically attractive in the future.

The expert's forecast for the future

Alexander's outlook for the coming years suggests that the shortage of skilled workers will continue, which is likely to result in an increased wave of automation. An additional trend will be the merging of contract manufacturers in order to make optimum use of machinery. The topic of sustainability will continue to gain in importance, even if companies in the sheet metal processing sector still have a long way to go to become a 'green factory'. Alexander also emphasizes the relevance of 'reshoring', in which companies will shift supply chains closer to their home locations and increasingly integrate regional suppliers.

Conclusion

The expert discussion with Alexander Kunz makes it clear that the sheet metal processing industry is facing profound changes. The industry is undergoing a comprehensive transformation, characterized by automation, digitalization and an increased focus on sustainability. The shortage of skilled workers is driving the search for innovative solutions, while digitalization and artificial intelligence are revolutionizing the way we work.

Even though companies in the sheet metal processing industry have already started to reduce their ecological footprint with the help of environmentally friendly measures, the expert sees an even more pronounced focus on sustainability in the future. A look into the future also shows that, in addition to automation solutions and emission reduction, the industry will increasingly rely on the merger of contract manufacturers and the strengthening of regional supply chains in order to operate even more efficiently and sustainably.

Finally, we would like to thank Alexander for his valuable insights into the dynamic development of the sheet metal processing industry and his extensive expertise.

Interested in more expert knowledge? Click here to learn from the interview with Sven Matthiesen about the challenges and latest innovations in product development.

Interview Partner

Alexander Kunz

Program Lead Next Level Sales & Services / TRUMPF

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